Duality of Light

By Wendy Walker

duality-of-light-lynette-wallworth.jpgDuality of Light, 2009

Australian artist filmmaker Lynette Wallworth is viewed on home ground

A survey exhibition of Sydney-based Lynette Wallworth's new media works from the last decade was a highlight of an invigorated Art & The Moving Image program, part of the biennial Adelaide Film Festival; and, for the first time, the Festival elected to commission a major work by a visual artist (in past years funds have been solely directed towards feature films, such as Rolf de Heer's multi-award winning Ten Canoes, 2006).

The commissioned work, Wallworth's Duality of Light, is an immersive installation inspired by the Preah Khan temple at Kompong Svay in Cambodia. Wallworth's projects characteristically explore themes of grief, love and survival, with Duality of Light the final part of an interactive trilogy that cumulatively represents a journey. With a degree of trepidation,[1] one viewer at a time enters a dark corridor; there is, however, merely a moment of uncertainty – an awareness of the need to tread carefully, as the observer becomes cognisant of a distant, dimly-lit screen and the seemingly subterranean sounds of dripping, trickling water (sound designer Chris Watson based his accompanying installation on recordings made in the Waitomo Caves in New Zealand). A ghostly presence, which looms on the screen, is soon dispersed in a rush of ‘wind’; attentive viewers discover that they have a strange capacity to affect the resultant abstract mass of shifting on-screen lines and particles.

According to catalogue essayist Catherine Wilson, in Mahayanist philosophy, “enlightenment is attained when the individual has undergone three stages of transfiguration... transcendent knowledge occurs when the subject / object duality dissipates in a transition to a state of complete unity with the world.”[2] Artists have frequently employed doors, windows and passages as metaphors for transitional spaces, for boundaries that are also thresholds [3]; it is therefore appropriate that Duality of Light was presented in the gallery within a corridor-structure. Moreover, Wallworth views non-threatening (comfortable) darkness as a space where transformation occurs. “What becomes apparent as our eyes adjust, our pupils dilate and we see with far more sensitivity is not just what is without, but sometimes what is within.”

hold-vessel-1_and-2-lynette-wallworth.jpgHold: Vessel 1 & 2, 2001-07

Invisible by Night – the first part of the trilogy [4] – was commissioned by Experimenta for the 2004 Melbourne International Arts Festival. The specified location was the Visitor Centre at Federation Square, which Wallworth discovered had been the site of Melbourne's first morgue. Seeking to establish a link with the history of the place, the final form of the work was resolved by a chance encounter on a Melbourne tram with a recently bereaved woman (Wallworth has alluded to the way in which Australian mourners in the wake of the Balinese bombings found comfort in communal Balinese ceremonies that honour the dead). Invisible by Night – which Wallworth has dedicated to the grieving stranger who shared her narrative with the artist – therefore has at its core something that is real. “It’s not a performance,” says Wallworth, “it is a revelation of a state (which needed to be respected and given time).”

Obscured by a veil of condensation, the life-sized figure of a woman slowly, repetitively paces. When the heat sensitive screen is touched by the viewer, the woman approaches and wipes clear a ‘window’ so that we see her eyes, before turning away once more to resume her relentless pacing (the work is made up of seven, separate, randomly-triggered films).

Wallworth likes to work with darkened spaces, in which the darkness is not terrifying, but rather gently inviting – a state she regards as “almost endangered in industrialised nations... since all our conscious moments are immured in light. Like silence,” she says, “darkness is precious and it brings riches with it.” In her best-known work Hold: Vessel 1 & 2 (2001-2007), viewers use frosted white glass bowls (collected from a plinth before entering the darkened space) to locate the correct focal point for viewing non-enhanced imagery of marine life and the solar system that streams from five overhead projectors (each film also has its own soundtrack).

invisible-by-night-lynette-wallworth.jpgInvisible by Night, 2004

The spectacular images are drawn from myriad sources, including David Hannan's film of the extraordinary mass coral spawning that occurs once a year on the Great Barrier Reef, Jeremy Pickett-Heaps' microscopic organisms and rare footage of the 2004 Transit of Venus. It is also worth noting that the frosted glass of the bowls constitutes an historical cinematic reference to the sandblasted glass of early projection screens .Two new video projections entitled Colonies and Light were commissioned by the British Film Institute, where it was first shown as Hold: Vessel 1 & 2 at London’s Southbank Gallery in 2007.

Integral to Wallworth's unmistakable ecological imperative is her intention to provoke in the spectator a state of not knowing – the sort of wonder at (and respect for) the complexities of the natural world demonstrated by the scientists she encountered in the course of the project. The lack of identifying context therefore emerges as a conscious strategy; what appears to be a planet may in fact be the skin of a fish and so on. Wallworth makes the observation that the annual mass coral spawning, which occurs simultaneously along 2,300 kilometres of the Queensland coastline only became recognised as a phenomenon in the early 1980s. As a result of the dramatic consequences of climate change, the making of Hold, which Wallworth regards as an ongoing project, has gained a new (and undesired) impetus; the giant kelp forests of southern Tasmania for example, which featured in Hold: Vessel I (2001), have now been reduced by approximately 95%.

The subtext of much of Wallworth's work is the formation of an (apparently incidental) non-hierarchical community of strangers and an important aspect of Hold: Vessel 1 & 2 is the sense of temporary community that is created in the gallery space, as the flickering imagery captured in the fragile bowl is observed communally (due to the limited number of bowls) and the bowl offered – in what the artist describes as a ceremonial and universally understood gesture – to other spectators.

hold-vessel-1-lynette-wallworth.jpgHold: Vessel 1, 2001-07

Commissioned for Vienna's New Crowned Hope Festival in 2006 and presented as a series of alternating digital images on three discrete screens, Damavand Mountain was photographed during a 2004 residency in the small mountain village of Poloor in Iran. Whilst highlighting the ephemerality of a woman's chador buffeted by the wind, the slowly withering petals of a brilliant red poppy and the clouds that shroud a snow-covered mountain, Wallworth simultaneously draws attention to the non-transient elements of her imagery; finally, we glimpse the uncovered face of the woman, seated alone in the landscape. The equally contemplative work Beautiful Sunset (2006) – filmed at Quorn in South Australia's Flinders Ranges – records the gradual fading of the setting sun on a quintessentially Australian scene dominated by a river red gum. It invokes a tradition of Australian landscape painting and, interestingly, a major Hans Heysen [5] (1877-1968) retrospective was showing at the Art Gallery of South Australia during the installation of Wallworth's exhibition. By including Beautiful Sunset, but not its companion piece Still Waiting2 (2006), in which the spare grandeur of the Australian landscape is disrupted by the intermittent shrieking of vast flocks of corellas, the works in the survey exhibition are consistently contemplative, poetic, quiet – although frequently not so quiet in their implications.

evolution-of-fearlessness-lynette-wallworth.jpgEvolution of Fearlessness, 2006

Therein lies Wallworth's strength; the ability to temper highly sophisticated technology with the simple (and direct) human gesture of touch in works – distinguished by their subtlety and power to move the viewer / participant. – that address the epic themes of human existence.


[1] This does not compare with the kind of heightened anxiety experienced in the corridor-approach to Monica Bonvicini's 1998 work that deafeningly replicated hurricane-force wind speeds. The remarkable A violent, tropical, cyclonic piece of art having wind speeds of or in excess of 75mph! was shown at the 1999 Melbourne International Biennial Signs of Life.
[2] Catherine Wilson, Lynette Wallworth: Duality of Light, catalogue essay. Wilson also cites Kristeva's notion that the foreigner lives within us – a concept relevant to Duality of Light.
[3] Anthony Vidler has noted that, in the work of Mike Kelley, “entrances, schoolrooms, passages and the like become so many substitutes for the ‘primal scenes’ eagerly sought out by psychoanalysis.” In Isabelle Graw, Anthony Vidler, John C Welchman, Mike Kelley, (London: Phaidon, 1999)
[4] The sequel to Invisible by Night is Evolution of Fearlessness (2006), which brings together 11 women (refugees, victims of violence etc), who reside in Australia. Together the two interactive works deal with “loss and its aftermath, survival and beyond that, hope and strength.” Evolution of Fearlessness was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009, but was not part of the survey exhibition at the Samstag Museum of Art.
[5] Hans Heysen, who migrated to Australia from Germany with his family, became renowned for the consummate clarity of his heroic depictions of the indigenous eucalypts, as well as the rugged terrain of the Flinders Ranges.

Lynette Wallworth: Duality of Light was shown at the Anne and Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, Adelaide, South Australia, 19th February – 24th April 2009. Duality of Light was produced by Forma (www.forma.org.uk).

Quotes from Lynette Wallworth are from February-March 2009 communications with the author. The artist can be heard discussing her work at Mostly Mozart 2008 Listening Lounge at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Wendy Walker is a writer and art critic for the Australian newspaper. She is the author of Deborah Paauwe: Beautiful Games (2004) and is working on a biography of Anne and Gordon Samstag.